I always associate the Fourth of July with beaches. This might likely have to do with the family vacation we took when I was nine years old. My mother was pregnant with my younger brother, and she was feeling so bad that we cancelled our vacation to Pensacola, Florida (four hours by car from where we lived in New Orleans). My older brother and I were disappointed, but she was sick, so what could you do?
And then she rallied. We had lost our reservations, but my father found another hotel, the Congress Inn in Pensacola Beach, with the help of a telephone operator in Pensacola (yes, there used to be real people you dialed for information and phone numbers in distant cities). I can remember standing in the kitchen, probably dancing in nervousness, while he talked with her.
And we were off. It would only be for three days, but that was sufficient.
My mother would spend most of the three days resting in our room. But it was the beach! Sunshine! Sunburns! Seafood! And the fireworks lighting up the night sky on the Fourth of July.
I probably didn’t think too much about the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence. But I am thinking about them today.
They ranged in age from 26 to 70. Edward Rutledge, a South Carolina lawyer, was 26. The oldest was none other than Benjamin Franklin, age 70. One of the signers, Richard Stockton of New Jersey, later recanted his signature. Eight of the signers had actually been born in Great Britain.
These 56 men (yes, it was all men; that’s how it was in 1776) knew full well they could be signing their death warrants. And they knew they had put everything at risk for what they cared for – family, position, wealth, professions, their everyday lives – everything went into play. But they believed the risk was worth taking, and the alternative was unacceptable.
I am thinking about them today, especially today, a few days after the Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case. A court divided on ideological lines said Hobby Lobby did not have to pay for employees’ contraceptive services as required under the Affordable Care Act. The next day, the court expanded the decision to apply to six other pending cases.
The reaction was predictable, and indicative of the times we live in. For some time, our politics, and political rhetoric, have been an all-or-nothing proposition. We don’t debate any more, we don’t even argue. We scream past each other. And so it was with the Hobby Lobby decision. And our incessant 24-hour news cycle, with its insatiable demand for news, commentary, speculation, opinion, and rants, helped fuel another opportunity to keep screaming past each other.
Eventually, we’ll learn the real impact of the decision. I suspect it was neither a total triumph of religious liberty nor a total destruction of women’s rights, although that’s what you would have understood from the media coverage. Of course, the media coverage looked tepid compared to what happened on the internet.
We do have a precedent for this kind of polarized rhetoric, where the stakes kept increasing and the screaming kept getting louder. And that is the decade of the 1850s, and what happened after the so-called Compromise of 1850. The polarized screaming finally ended in December, 1860. A few months of relative silence followed, and then came April 12, 1861.
So I think about those 56 men, risking it all, putting everything on the line when they signed a piece of paper together in Philadelphia. And the Fourth of July is not about beaches, barbecues, sunburns and fireworks. Not really.
Illustration: Painting of Fireworks by Lilla Frerichs via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.